Emilia Nodżak received an MA in English Studies from Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. She is a PhD candidate at MCSU working on her doctoral thesis exploring construction of women’s occupational identities in early 21st century American primetime dramas. She has participated in several conferences, presenting papers concerning portrayal of masculinity in print advertising, differences between the Polish and American feminist discourse, and representation of women in American TV dramas. The majority of these papers have been published. Her main academic interests include women’s studies, popular culture, intersectionality and feminism.
Women Working in (Non)Traditional Occupations – the (in)Visible Bodies and Gender Performance
Women are culturally expected to intentionally police and force their bodies in order to comply with the demands of the job or the workplace. The role of the body within the latter as inextricably linked to the demonstration of professionalism has been discussed in numerous studies (Crompton, 2005; Gini, 2000; Grey, 1994; Tyler and Abbot, 1998). In this paper I want to report the findings of my research concerning the representation of the tensions between these two dimensions of women’s bodily existence by looking at the female working characters’ physical features, such as their age, race/racial categories, shapes and sizes, sexuality and disability as well as the accommodation of pregnancy in their careers.
The material for the analysis consists of 51 American primetime dramas that originally aired between 1999 and 2010, which featured women in prominent professional roles, as leading protagonists or in main roles, and the characters in the sample have been investigated usingqualitative content analysis and quantitative textual analysis.
Each character has been assigned to a particular racial group based on her explicitly declared status or, when this information could not be unequivocally determined, on her external features. The following numbers have been identified: 158 are White, Black female characters amount to 32, six are Asian, and 20 represent Some Other Race. Importantly, neither American Indian/Alaska Native nor Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander characters have been determined in the sample. Thus racial groups with minority status remain effectively excluded from the onscreen workplace, while White characters appear to be omnipresent.
The characters in the sample have been assigned to one of four major age groups characteristic of the workforce: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, and 50+. Additionally, the age has been correlated with the character’s race to determine the patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
|Some Other Race||5||14||1||0|
Table 1. Age and race.
The results reveal a marked lack of representation of 40+ Asian women as well as a steep fall in the number of women of all the other races aged 40-49 and 50+. They also show that White and Black women are relatively proportionally represented in all age groups but the youngest, even though absolute figures are disconcerting.
The shapes and sizes
The prevalence of body shapes and sizes has been determined using a silhouette-based tool developed for assessment of body size perception by Stunkard et al. (1983).
In Black and Asian groups, the majority of women tend to have a normal weight (53% and 75%, respectively). However, the number of White underweight characters rises dramatically and is nearly as high as the number of those within the normal weight range (44% and 45%, respectively), whereas for Some Other Race the underweight characters constitute 52%, with 43% within the normal weight range. The percentage of overweight or obese characters is nearly the same for both White (11%) and Black (12.5%) group, whereas the combined presence of such characters in the Asian and Some Other Race group equals 4%, with a single overweight character belonging to Some Other Race in the investigated sample. Overall, overweight and obese characters constitute 11.5% of the analysed characters.
The highest percentage of underweight women was, in descending order, among the agents (57%), lawyers (51%), scientists (50%), doctors (44%), law enforcement and nurses (40% in each group), high school teachers (38%), medical examiners and HORECA professionals (33% in each group), and CSIs (30%). Overall, the female characters who feature in the most popular types of shows tend to be unnaturally thin. Interestingly, only the nurses have a fairly balanced representation of female body types: 40% of these characters have normal weight, 40% are underweight, and 20% are overweight. It has to be emphasized, though, that the whole group consists of ten female characters altogether, yielding the absolute numbers as negligible. Finally, obese characters can only be found among the high school teachers, chefs, and social workers, amounting to a total of three.
The unnaturally thin physique favoured over other body shapes becomes a very important attribute securing the female professional success. It is especially poignant in the case of high-profile, prestigious careers, such as doctors and lawyers, and the occupations requiring physical fitness, namely the police force and agents. The limited presence of obese working women is only allowed in broadly defined caring occupations, i.e. nursing, teaching, cheffing. Nonetheless, even though excessive body weight is often associated with laziness, negligence or lack of control, it is not framed this way in the examined cases and it does not render obese characters unprofessional.
Only two characters have been identified as having a disability. Both characters suffer from mobility impairments, but neither of the disabilities encumber the women’s performance at work; one is perceived as a competent and accomplished medical doctor in position of authority, and the other as an efficient and quick-witted nurse. Significantly, both characters are played by able-bodied actresses; which is a standard practice with a 95% occurrence rate (Woodburn and Kopić, 2016).
Thus the dominant discourse regarding the representation of physical femininity in the workplace context is that it must be embodied by an able-bodied woman.
Lesbian characters in the sample include five doctors, an assistant district attorney,a nurse, and police officer. In turn, bisexual women included two doctors, a HORECA entrepreneur, a forensic asrtist, and a PR specialist. With the exception of a nurse and a caterer, nearly all characters perform non-traditional jobs. In none of the cases would their bodies be recognized as butch lesbian – they are all feminine-looking femme lesbian and conventionally attractive, with the exception of one doctor. Moreover, in none of the cases is the characters’ professional status endangered, even though they are quite open about their sexual orientation in the workplace.
Importantly, different female sexualities in the examined TV dramas are largely homogeneously constructed as variants of traditional heterosexual femininity. This prevalent uniformity of female bodies could be interpreted as an implemented strategy for constructing occupational identity by connecting professionalism with hegemonic femininity. Such image of the woman and female body prevails in American popular culture, and this particular context reaffirms the standard.
The shape-changing process of pregnancy renders the female body as departing from the normative professional ideal that is trim, slim, able-bodied and fit. During the 1999-2010 period, a total of 28 pregnancies appear on screen, meaning that only 15% of characters in reproductive age experience pregnancy over the period in question. Moreover, early stages of pregnancy are not much visible and have no impact on job performance, whereas full time of pregnancy does entail all sorts of changes in the appearance and yet still has relatively little impact on the character’s professional performance. Finally, there are six cases when pregnancies end early in miscarriage (four) or are aborted (two), either electively or due to medical reasons. The complications enable the characters to expose their flat abdominal areas for ultrasound scans, and the lack of any pregnancy signs reinforces the idea that the professional female body puts its reproductive functions on hold, framing the lost pregnancies as a glitch in the system.
Pregnancy epitomizes femininity in its fullest. The physical enlargement of the female frame symbolically threatens hegemonic masculinity on two counts. First, the undisciplined female body going through the natural yet often unpredictable physiological process requires special treatment and occupies more space, competing with the “ordinary” male bodies. Secondly, this natural realization of hegemonic femininity becomes a subversive transgression in the workplace, where female sexuality is only welcome as long as it does not entail the reproductive consequences.
To conclude, the commonly recognized standard regarding the female body in the workplace is highly consistent with the attributes traditionally associated with white, Western, heterosexual femininity. Despite superficial variety, representations of working women in the examined TV series are constructed according to the cultural pattern embedded in the workplaces which are still governed by masculine rules. Any deviations from the norms of white Western heterosexual femininity in the work-related context are marginal. Although working women as a whole have gained more visibility and agency as a group, close inspection reveals various facets of exclusion. The disturbing yet persistent tendency to valorize young, White, able-bodied, heterosexual and child-free women in the TV workplace in both traditional and non-traditional occupations remains vastly unchallenged.
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Tyler, Melissa, and Pamela Abbott. “Chocs Away: Weight Watching in the Contemporary Airline Industry.” Sociology, vol. 32, no. 3, Aug. 1998, pp. 433–450.
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